Pogo is a little ridiculous. But so is BMX and skateboarding. And baseball. And Jesus I love baseball. Their absurdity doesn’t make any of them less valid or their practitioners less talented or driven. It’s just that, by nature, all sports are built upon boredom, group support, availability of “tools,” and a universal desire to create a complicated set of arbitrary rules or etymology. So what sets a “serious” sport apart from a frivolous sport? MONEY. And viewership, which is why we have this amazing video collection of bored, talented individuals who figured out how to take a toy and make it one of the most dangerous sports. Like good Americans.
Co-founder of Xpogo Nick Ryan was an early adopter of pogo-for-danger, but was unable to remain a rider after the right side of his body went through a temporary paralysis, the cause of which seems to be pogo-related but not because of a fall. So, being a budding marketer already, he formed Xpogo to become the first and only professional pogo management company—he still has no rivals. Ryan’s main job was to get the sport in front of people, and he happened to be starting at a time when kids all over the world were already embracing sites like YouTube to share their ridiculous stunts. The only other thing he needed was MONEY. But MONEY, as we all know, comes from absurdly heightened stunts and broken barriers, which is why Xpogo, more than most budding fringe sports, is extremely reliant upon science.
Simultaneously, three different inventors were working on three different designs to bring pogo to the next level. In this surprisingly interesting Smithsonian article, Ariel Sabar tracks down all three—Bruce Middleton, an MIT genius who invented the Flybar then became homeless when he couldn’t reconcile his morals with the MONEY; Ben Brown, a 67-year-old former Carnegie Mellon robotics engineer who invented BowGo; and Bruce Spencer, a retired firefighter and aerospace engineer who invented the Vertugo. What these three men and their collaborators had in common was the ability to look at a traditional pogo stick and say: This is a problem to be solved.
All three engineers worked with younger counterparts—primarily skateboarders—who were able to test and retest the projects until each was designed to withstand the weight and rough usage, and a 17-year-old Canadian kid was able to jump a BowGo up to seven-and-a-half feet in a parking lot. Suddenly an invention that had once been popularized in the 1920s for an alternative to dancing and walking became a hugely dangerous and expressive sport. Pogo luminaries like Tone Staubs, Michael Mena, and Fred Grzybowski started touring around under the Xpogo logo, and multiple videos of their exploits in New York and Brazil caught people’s attention. But no matter how many nine-foot backflips these kids do, they still seem to go on the defensive, often espousing the danger of the sport as a badge, when it’s also quite clear that the implementation of technology is remarkable in itself.
This past year, Xpogo was the first pogo troupe to be welcomed into the historic Rose Bowl Parade as the grand finale. Videos show synchronized flips and complicated balancing acts with a crowd screaming at rock-concert decibels. Yeah, it’s difficult not to look a little silly when you’re bouncing around like a kangaroo and when the description of a pogo sounds more than vaguely sexual, but it’s a pretty incredible feat to get that high and land on a singular pressure point not more than three inches in diameter. Nick Ryan and Xpogo riders have reportedly been figuring out the MONEY side of their sport, and internet videos and scattered performances have given them exponential validity. The unbreakable boundary remains inclusion in the X-Games. If the pace keeps up, maybe they’ll get there, but they still have to convince the jocks that the nerds can get dangerous, too.